Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Migdol

 

Is The Hebrew Word For “Tower” (Migdol) A Loan Word From Egyptian?

B. Hodge, Biblical Authority Ministries, March 2, 2022

I was shocked. I was in a meeting where someone made a claim that migdol, the word for “Tower” in Genesis 11, “…is an Egyptian loan word”. They proceeded to give a definition I’ve never heard; naturally, it piqued my interest. 

I’ve studied the subject of the Tower of Babel for about 15 years, worked with Hebrew scholars, theologians, and historians on the subject, and have published on it extensively, including a popular book on the subject.

The person claiming this then proceeded to develop an understanding of the Tower of Babel in light of neo-definition of the word as opposed to the Hebrew definition. Although both words mean tower, the definitions vary more than one might think—for instance, the Egyptian definition suggested a tower included things like a sandbar in a river.

Then the new conclusions, based on this new definition, were used in part to derive a Tower of Babel to be starkly different that anything you might have imagined. But the argument was framed as saying the Israelites were “Egyptized” due to the time in Egypt.  

Nevertheless, this threw up a big red flag to me. First, I wanted to check their claim that migdol really was a loan word from Egyptian. Secondly, wanted to know why this was done.

Is Migdol An Egyptian Loan Word?

 

One of the first places I looked was respected Hebrew Lexicon Brown-Driver-Briggs.[1] It gives no indication that migdol is a loan word from Egypt. To the contrary, the Hebrew word migdol is a Hebrew word with Hebrew variations and Hebrew derivations from other distinctly Hebrew words.

Next, I checked the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, OLB Hebrew Lexicon, NAS Hebrew Lexicon, Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon, Lexique Hebreu, HALOT (pp. 543–544), DCH (5:130–132), TDOT (8:69–73), NIDOTTE (2:841–842), and none said it was an Egyptian loan word.[2] Each one consistently gave definitions like: 1. Tower 2. Elevated Stage and 3. Raised bed (of flowers). 

These lexicons were consistent that the Hebrew word migdol, is related to several other Hebrew words which is typical for normal Hebrew words (migdal, gadol, godel gadel) and migdol itself derived from the root Hebrew word “to grow up” (gadal). A tower is aptly named since it is a building that was built up above the surrounding structures. 

I also decided to check another languages that we know derived from Eber the son of Selah that had no influence from Egypt to see if they used migdol. Biblical Hebrew was ancient Israelite Hebrew—it does have distinctions from modern Hebrew. Arabic is a language of Eber that came down through Ishmael. Though it could be tainted with Egyptian words since he was half Egyptian himself—his mother Hagar was Egyptian.

I decided to look to the Chaldean languages. The Chaldeans were of Eber’s lineage (descendants of Eber and Peleg; think “Eberew” or “Heberew”). The name Chaldeans and Chaldea is derived from the name Chesed[3] and was used by Nahor, the brother of Abraham, for one of his sons (Genesis 22:20-22).

The Chaldeans were Hebrews (descendants of Eber) and therefore spoke a version Hebrew. Abraham, for instance was a Hebrew and was called out of Ur of the Chaldeans (e.g., Genesis 11:28-31; Nehemiah 9:7), which was his ancestral family area. The variant languages of Heber change through the years of course. Aramaic, a form of the Chaldean language was similar and yet distinct enough from the language of Judah in Isaiah 36:11.

The Chaldeans were never in Egypt and were not influenced by the Egyptians in any significant way. Naturally, any Middle Eastern nation is going to have some remedial contact with other nations, but Chaldea was never in a position like the Israelites, to be “Egyptized”.   

The Chaldean language was the Hebrew form that prevailed and became dominant during the Babylonian Empire. It became the common trade language of the day for many places that Babylon had conquered. After the Babylonian Empire was dissolved into the Persian Empire, its Chaldean language, though not without its variations, continued as the trade language in many parts of the Middle East even Galilee and Israel up until Christ’s earthly ministry.

The Chaldean language split into variants such as Eastern and Western Chaldean (sometimes called East and West Chaldee). West Chaldean which was dominant in the lands of Aram (one of Noah’s grandson’s progeny who mixed with some of Togarmah’s descendants) became known as “Aramaic” (with a variation known at Syriac) and there are a few passages in the Old Testament that use the Aramaic form of Chaldean (Ezra 4:8 – 6:18; Ezra 7:12-26; Daniel 2:4-7:28; and Jeremiah 10:11). Christian Professor Philip Schaff who was first chair of Hebrew and Cognate Languages at Union Theological Seminary and was involved in the Revised translation of the Bible (1888) writes in 1904:

“The principal languages or the Aramaic group are the ARAMAIC proper, of CHALDEE, and the SYRAIC. They differ mainly in pronunciation and spelling.”[4]

So, what word does the Chaldean languages use for Tower? The Aramaic Lexicon and Concordance says it is[5]:

·       (Eastern) MaG,D'LaA

·       (Western) MaG,D'LoA

Hebrew languages do not have vowels but vowels or vowel points are added them to give us an idea of the pronunciation. So basically, this is MGDL. If you can’t tell, this is essential transliterated as magdal and magdol. It is the same basic word we find for Biblical Hebrew (MGDL) which is מגדל migdal mig-dawl’ also (in pl.) fem. מגדלה migdalah mig-daw-law’.   

Therefore, there is no reason to presume this word is anything other than a Hebrew word found in variant forms of Heber’s descendants’ language.

So why?

 

Was it a simple mistake? If one looks at Egypt, they have towers too. They also have a word similar to the Hebrew word for tower too. 

Dr. David A. Falk of the University of British Columbia who is an expert in Egyptian studies write on The Torah website while discussing towers in Egypt that:

“The native Egyptian words for “tower” are ḫtm and swnw.”[6]

He also points out something unique when discussing migdol in Egypt. Dr. Falk write:

“The idea that Pi-Hahiroth and Baal-Zephon were lookout posts fits with a third toponym in this same section, Migdol, one of the fortresses on the Way of Horus, a road that was guarded by several fortresses intended to control the flow of traffic from the Levant. The Egyptian version of this name, mˁktir actually derives from a Semitic loan word מגדל, “tower.””[7]

He points out that the Egyptians borrowed the word from the Hebrews since they are not using their native words in certain instances. This is an important reflection. We need to exercise caution instead of naively saying the Israelites in Egypt borrowed a word from Egyptian, when in fact, it could easily be the other way around. In this case, we can ascertain that it was borrowed from the Israelite Hebrew.

So, was it a simple mistake? I hope so.

 



[1] The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody Massachusetts, 1906 (2005, Ninth Printing), pp. 153-154, 550.

[2] All of these were checked in Online Bible Software, accessed November 3, 2021 or reference given in the text. 

[3] Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers, Notes on Job 1:17 says, “The Chaldeans.—Literally, Chasdim, or descendants of Chesed (Genesis 22:22; see Note on Job 1:1). This name reappears in the classic Carduchia and in the modern Kurdistan, as well as in the more familiar Chaldæa; it being a well-known philological law that r and l and r and s are interchangeable.”, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/job/1-17.htm; John Gill’s Commentary notes on Job 1:17 also affirm this relationship when he says, “these Chaldeans or Chasdim were the descendants of Chesed, a son of Nahor, who was brother to Abraham, Genesis 22:20, who settled in the east country, not far from Job”, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/job/1-17.htm.

[4] Philip Schaff, Theological Propaedeutic, Sixth Edition, Charles Scribner’s Sons Publishers, New York, 1904, p. 116.

[5] Aramaic Lexicon and Concordance, Entry: Tower, Accessed November 4, 2021, https://www.atour.com/cgi-bin/dictionary.cgi?string=tower&Search_Field=Meaning.

[6] David A. Falk, "What We Know about the Egyptian Places Mentioned in Exodus" TheTorah.com (2018). https://thetorah.com/article/what-we-know-about-the-egyptian-places-mentioned-in-exodus.

[7] Ibid.

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